When Willie Sue Smith Stewart died on August 17 at the age of 101, she attracted a little more attention than the typical elderly black lady in small-town Texas. The obituaries all noted her accomplishments — a long career as a teacher, a progeny of eight grandchildren, and hitting the century mark — but the real interest for readers lay in her brush with fame: She was one of 41 graduates from Eureka College in 1932 and had been the final survivor of the class that included Ronald Reagan.
Eureka College put out a press release and sent two representatives to her funeral, which is not how this cash-strapped school usually behaves when a graduate dies. But Willie Sue was its last living link to the man who has mattered more to its reputation than any other — and the way the college treated her passing shows how fully it has tried to embrace its legacy as the alma mater of one of America’s great statesmen.
This is a relatively new development. Reagan loved Eureka, but Eureka hasn’t always loved him back. At times, the college has been downright conflicted about its best-known alumnus. Professors and administrators at liberal-arts colleges weren’t exactly a part of his core constituency, so even at Eureka, Reagan met with skepticism.
But now Reagan is everywhere at Eureka College. Crammed onto its 112-acre campus are a Ronald Reagan Museum, a Ronald Reagan Peace Garden, a Ronald Reagan Leadership Program, a Ronald Reagan Society (join for $35), and banners proclaiming the Reagan centenary. The Reagan Physical Education Center doesn’t carry a first name because technically it refers to both the politician and his older brother Neil, who also attended the college. On September 24, Eureka added to its honor roll by dedicating the Reagan Research Center, which now occupies the basement of the college library. Pretty soon, it seems, there won’t be anything left to do but rename the college itself.
The Disciples of Christ founded Eureka College on Feb. 6, 1855, exactly 56 years before Reagan’s birth. The college is one of more than a dozen associated with the denomination. (The biggest is Texas Christian University.) Located in Eureka, Ill., just east of Peoria, it has a Lincoln Rock, placed where its namesake gave a speech. Its history might be summed up as Lincoln (quoting Gray’s “Elegy”) once summed up his own: “the short and simple annals of the poor.” Current Eureka president Dave Arnold puts it this way: “The school has been in financial trouble for 150 years.” Reagan, who served on the board of trustees for almost two decades before becoming president, knew the problem well. “There have been times in these last 50 years when it seems as if the college ‘’neath the elms’ might not make it but somehow it always did,” he wrote in a 1983 letter. (“’Neath the elms” is a line from Eureka’s school song, which Reagan sang so much in private that even his children knew it.)
Eureka struggled but somehow carried on, even as many other small liberal-arts colleges in the Midwest shut down. Some observers would say the school owes a debt to divine providence. In the future, they may also want to credit Reagan, because Eureka is now doing all it can to associate itself with him. It might be said that Eureka — whose name, meaning “I have found it,” derives from the famous exclamation by the Greek mathematician Archimedes — at last has discovered Ronald Reagan.
#page#Reagan chose Eureka sight unseen. “I’d like to be able to recall that my burning desire to go to college was planted first and foremost in a drive to get an education,” he wrote in his autobiography. “But at seventeen, I think I was probably more motivated by love for a pretty girl and a love for football.” Reagan followed his girlfriend, Margaret Cleaver, to the college and played on its football team for four years. The obituaries of Willie Sue Smith tended to share one anecdote from her time at Eureka: She helped Cleaver and Reagan pass notes to each other in class. The couple eventually broke up, with Cleaver dumping Reagan. She married a lawyer, raised a family, and apparently never returned to campus. Reagan went to Hollywood — and he kept coming back to Eureka.
The college knows of a dozen visits, starting in 1947, when Reagan returned as a movie star and served as grand marshal in the Eureka Pumpkin Festival. Ten years later, he received an honorary doctorate. (“I thought my first degree was honorary!” he joked.) After that were dedications and speeches, including one as a presidential candidate, two as president, and a final journey in 1992. “Strange what a hold that little campus can have on us,” he wrote in a 1961 letter. Reagan attributed much of his success to what he learned at the college. “Everything that has been good in my life began here,” he said on a visit. He uttered this line, or some version of it, again and again. In particular, Reagan believed that Eureka’s small size provided a series of leadership opportunities — such as delivering his first-ever political speech, opposing the college president’s cost-cutting measures, which he did as a freshman.
Still, the college remained ambivalent. Shortly before Reagan’s election in 1980, the New York Times ran a story on Eureka: “In Spotlight, Reagan’s School Is Wary,” said the headline. The college adopted what the Times called a “policy of outward neutrality” during the election. The article also observed a discomfort with “those who would characterize the college on the basis of Mr. Reagan having attended Eureka.” For some, the tie was at least mildly embarrassing because Reagan often was portrayed by his critics as a simpleton.
With Reagan’s election, Eureka became one of the few colleges that could claim to have produced a president. Yet it remained something of a novelty. In the modern era, residents of the White House have tended to come from elite eastern institutions such as Columbia, Georgetown, Yale, and Harvard. Tiny Eureka, hidden in the Midwest and generally regarded as a “teachers and preachers” school, was like the answer to one of those familiar questions on standardized tests: “Which of these does not belong?” It didn’t quite know how to handle its sudden fame. A psychologist might have diagnosed it with an inferiority complex.
Daniel D. Gilbert, who was president of the college in 1980, served on Reagan’s transition team, but only because of his connection to Reagan through Eureka, rather than any shared conservatism. “I had never considered myself to be close even to moderate Republican ideology,” wrote Gilbert in his memoir, by which he meant he was a good deal to the left of it. Yet Gilbert recognized that Reagan’s rise presented Eureka with a unique opportunity. At an Oval Office meeting in 1981, Gilbert pitched the idea of scholarships named in honor of Reagan. The president, reports Gilbert, seemed flattered but made clear that he couldn’t ask anybody for money.
#page#Gilbert hoped that the Californians who had financed Reagan’s campaigns would be drawn to the idea of supporting Reagan by donating to Eureka. This proved more difficult than Gilbert had supposed, but the college managed to launch a scholarship program that continues to this day, with the help of Reagan supporters such as Holmes Tuttle and J. Paul Sticht. “The goal was to recreate and explore the process of developing leadership with service, as Reagan remembered the college having cultivated in him,” says Phil Palin, who directed the scholarships in the 1980s. “We were very explicit that this was not political.” The first class had 15 students, but the program has since been cut back to five per year.
Reagan returned to Eureka in 1982, marking the 50th anniversary of his class’s graduation and delivering the commencement address. He used the occasion to introduce the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). An account in the Peoria Journal Star says that nobody from the college made a political statement, with the exception of “a young woman who sported a green ‘ERA YES’ button on her robe.”
Two years later, things were different. As Eureka prepared to host another Reagan speech in 1984, several members of the faculty decided to protest. Mike Toliver, a biology professor and member of the Eureka Peace Issues Council, led the group. “We looked at what was going on in Central America and worried that our government was taking steps toward another Vietnam,” says Toliver, who fought in Vietnam as a Marine and remains on the college faculty today.
“There was also the rhetoric about Star Wars and the evil empire. We couldn’t stay silent.”
For Reagan’s speech, Eureka’s professors were scheduled to dress in their dark academic robes.
Toliver and his allies announced a plan to wear white armbands with blue doves on them. “The administration wasn’t thrilled,” says Marcus Ford, a protester who was then a professor of religion and philosophy at Eureka. Gilbert became so worried about the possibilities for humiliation that he canceled the robed procession. Professors were still invited to attend the speech, but they would do so as members of the public and take seats on the floor of the gymnasium. Yet this didn’t end the controversy. The chair of Eureka’s peace group was Linda
Gilbert, wife of the college president. She was scheduled to sit onstage during the speech — and she was talking about wearing an armband, no matter what her husband said. This apparently caused quite a row in the Gilbert home, with Daniel warning Linda that if she wore an armband she would have to sit in the general audience as well, even though he basically agreed with her criticisms of Reagan.
In the end, Gilbert dodged a controversy: Several professors wore armbands to Reagan’s speech and protested the appearance at gatherings before and after, but nobody shouted at the president or stood up and turned around during his remarks. Linda Gilbert decided to skip wearing the armband and join her husband onstage, but she did put on a small dove pin. Daniel said he didn’t notice until she pointed it out to him after Reagan’s departure.
Reagan didn’t come back until after his presidency. By that point, the college had moved into a period of uncertainty about how best to take advantage of its special connection. “The college didn’t betray Reagan’s legacy as much as neglect it,” says Jay Hein, a Eureka graduate who was in the first class of Reagan Scholarship recipients and is now a trustee of the college.
#page#Eureka did open a small Reagan museum in 1994, featuring the documents and memorabilia that Reagan had been sending to the college for years. “We were his presidential library before he was president,” says Brian Sajko, a theater professor who acted as curator. Sajko discovered that many of the boxes Reagan had sent remained unopened. “It became apparent that the college didn’t know just exactly what it had and that politics had caused some of this difficulty,” he says. “Generally, the college administration understood the value of Reagan while most of the powerful faculty lobby saw him as a conservative politician who they wanted to deny ever was connected to ‘their’ school.”
When Dave Arnold took over as Eureka’s president in 2005, he was surprised that the school wasn’t making more of its tie. “I don’t think the faculty was focused on what a great story it could tell with Reagan,” he says. “One of Eureka’s promotional publications boasted about how the school had produced 42 college presidents, seven governors, and a member of Congress — and also the 40th president of the United States, as if these were all equal accomplishments.”
Arnold is no conservative — he says he has never voted for a Republican — but early on he hired John Morris, a local GOP officeholder, to manage several Reagan initiatives, including a membership society, a publication on leadership, and fundraising campaigns among non-alumni who want to support the school because of its famous graduate. “We’d like to endow a Reagan chair for a professor of economics,” says Morris. “That was Reagan’s major here at Eureka, so we think it’s a good place to start.” In 2010, Eureka brought in nearly $1 million to pay for scholarships and speakers in Reagan’s name, almost 30 percent of all the money that the college raised last year.
Today, the college is perhaps friendlier to Republicans than ever before. Eureka’s graduation speaker last spring was Newt Gingrich. In August, Sarah Palin showed up, and Arnold gave her a private tour of the campus. Even Toliver, the biology professor who wore a peacenik armband in 1984, has changed his mind: “I’m still a liberal, but now I think Reagan was one of the greatest presidents of the 20th century,” he says. “With Mikhail Gorbachev, he made the world a safer place. If I had known then what I know now about Reagan, I don’t think I would have participated in that protest.”
Among the displays in Eureka’s Reagan Museum is a copy of the college’s 1932 yearbook, propped open to page 43. Pictures of six students are on the page, including Willie Sue Smith. Reagan’s photo is at the top. There’s a quote beside it: “The time never lies heavily upon him; it is impossible for him to be alone.” When I asked Morris what this meant, he wasn’t sure. A Google search revealed it to be a line from The Spectator, an 18th-century British periodical. The author is Joseph Addison, a prominent moralist, who wrote it in 1711. In the section of the essay that contains this line, Addison urges his readers to develop a habit of prayerfulness because then they’ll always be in the presence of God. His broader theme is time and how to make the most of it.
Eureka College seems finally to have absorbed the lesson that Reagan seems to have learned in his student days. Now it’s making up for lost time — and trying to keep its rendezvous with destiny.